Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.
Last week, Greater Greater Washington’s David Whitehead encouraged readers who live in DC to run for Advisory Neighborhood Commission office, a position that makes you part of a group that weighs in on a number of hyperlocal issues from housing to transportation. Some commented that DC would be better off without ANCs, but I don’t think that’d would help the city.
In his post, David explained the role that ANCs play in shaping DC policy, from working with restaurants to secure liquor licenses to giving input on proposed developments. While ANCs can’t actually make rules or decisions, District agencies give their opinions “great weight,” which makes them very influential.
David also implored readers file to run for ANC office, which there’s still time to do (you can also run a write-in campaign without circulating petitions, a move I’d say is especially worth looking into for seats that will have no candidate appear on the ballot).
A few readers, however, rejected the notion that ANCs are useful in the first place. After one said they’d prefer to abolish ANCs altogether, another said:
Yes! Democracy is great. Hyperlocal democracy is terrible. It’s bad enough that we as a metropolitan area have to deal with infighting among counties and three state-level jurisdictions. A race among ANCs to block development in a race to become the one corner of a quadrant to stay car-friendly and car-dependent and value-inflated and “peaceful” is just a mess of perverse incentives.
ANCs really aren’t so bad
As an ANC commissioner, I’m always curious about the perspective of people who want to abolish ANCs. I have an obvious bias in the matter, but I think those that assume ANCs are a road block to development and progressive ideas would find that most — if not all — of the “obstructionism” would just transfer over to citizens associations in their absence.
In fact, since ANCs are prohibited by law from suing, the incidence of plainly dilatory tactics on the part of those who reflexively oppose things would probably be even more pronounced if all the time/resources currently behind ANCs instead went into resurrecting or rejuvenating neighborhood associations that now have a secondary role.
I have two main thoughts on why ANCs are useful:
First, I find that in general (there are always exceptions), the ANC tends to be the moderating force in the neighborhood relative to citizens associations and groups of affected neighbors, who tend to be more “anti-development” and opposed to “progressive ideas.” A well-run ANC, and there are many — far more than there are dysfunctional ones — serves as an advocate for its community, but also works to be a forum for all different viewpoints and tries to broker a compromise weighted in the community’s interests.
Second, the plain fact is that some developments, some liquor licenses, some transportation ideas — are just bad ideas and need to be opposed. In the vast majority of cases, ANCs are reacting to things, most of which can be made better or at the very least made adequate from the community’s perspective. But sometimes, certain proposals are just bad ideas and should be stopped. There’s also a realm of reasonable judgement. You can be a good commissioner and just have a different perspective on smart growth issues than others without being some cartoonish NIMBY.
I think the second point is a little harder to appreciate unless you actually take on the role. Supporting something in a theoretical sense often sounds far better than turns out in practice. And sometimes, frankly, you have to decide to pick your battles.
It’s like any other level of politics. If your engaged constituents overwhelmingly prefer one course of action, and they’re the ones that show up, they’re the ones that write the letters, they’re the ones that bend your ear — then yeah, you have an obligation to listen to them and you have to weigh the cost of voting your beliefs and whether it’s worth doing in every case.
And eliminating ANCs isn’t some panacea for good governance or progressive change. San Francisco has restrictive zoning and no ANCs. Chicago is full of corruption and has no ANCs. What ANCs are is just a way to institutionalize the community involvement of a city full of very smart, very engaged, and very resourceful people who care a ton about what goes on in their neighborhoods.
Ninety-five percent of these people have no broader political ambition, and many of them are professionally high-caliber and could be doing something far more lucrative with their time. Even those who get involved for “selfish” reasons (e.g. a project that impacts their home or their building) often grow into the role and end up contributing far beyond the narrow scope of their original interest.
All that said, the thesis of David’s article is absolutely correct: The only way that people who believe in a smart-growth vision, or any other vision for that matter, will be able to affect the course of events is by getting involved and moving the median point of conversation in their direction.
ANCs are not going anywhere, so you might as well run for one and try to make a difference. You absolutely can and it is exceptionally rewarding. You’ll learn a lot about your neighborhood, you’ll learn a lot about your city, you’ll meet a lot of really cool people, and you can have a tangible impact on the place you live in. The satisfaction of helping people is why the vast majority of us do it, and if you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’ll have many stories to share of doing exactly that.